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Voltaire: A Life

Another look at the life of Voltaire, the 18th-century philosophe whom many would call the greatest, most interesting man of his epoch.

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Davidson’s 2004 biography of Voltaire, “Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years 1753-78,” is a couple of hundred pages shorter but is much better and offers interesting perspective on the last 25 years of Voltaire’s life.

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This new “complete” biography on the other hand, seems as if it is still in the notes stage. Davidson has found out gossip about people in Voltaire’s youth and middle age, and even if the gossip has no bearing on Voltaire, zut alors!, Davidson found it out, so he’s going to tell us. Davidson gives Voltaire’s remarkable mistress, Emilie du Chatelet, so much ink you would think the biography was about her. Through her letters, we follow her love affairs and her physics experiments and influential books. She is amazing, one of the most important people in Voltaire’s life, but she is not Voltaire.

In 1728, Voltaire and a friend outsmarted the mathematics of a governmental lottery and became rich. The money gave him the advantage of being able to take flight whenever he offended the church or the state. He miscalculated, however, the degree of freedom he would have in the court of Prussia’s Frederick the Great and suffered in Frederick’s power for a few years. (Voltaire’s lesson, which would have been well taken by Soviet writers under Stalin, should have been: “Don’t trust tyrants, even if they have a literary bent.”)

But his time in Frederick’s court lost him the little favor he had in the French court and he was forbidden to enter Paris or its environs for the rest of Louis XV’s life. He set up estates on the outskirts of Geneva and in eastern France, sure that he was lost to the pleasures of cultivated civilization. Instead – and this is the primary and most interesting thesis of Davidson’s two biographies – Voltaire found happiness outside the limelight and discovered, among other things, that he was quite effective at publicizing French judicial crimes. He had a greater career as a champion of human rights for the last 30 years of his life than he had already had – great as it was – to the age of 50.

At the age of 64, he wrote “Candide,” the funniest novella in world literature, about the globe-trotting naif who loses his innocence as he experiences wars and other injustices at the hands of both so-called civilized and primitive peoples. Davidson observes: “It marks a striking departure from his courtly and literary voice, his plays, his poems and his histories, aimed at the restricted audience of the educational establishment. His invention of a popular voice, aimed at public opinion in a broader sense, undoubtedly added to his popular credibility when he came to engage in his later human rights cases.”

I love letters, and I’ve read a fraction of Voltaire’s, but his life is not the letters. The letters are what he wrote to amuse his friends and to vent, to publicize institutional criminality and to beg for favors. They’re fine letters, but what we want is the life, which is what the quite marvelous and far superior biography by Theodore Besterman did. To Besterman, Voltaire was the greatest, most interesting man of the epoch.

With Davidson, we’re tied to the bundles of letters. Besterman, whom Davidson scorns (“because of Besterman’s tendency to bombast and self-importance”), was the great 20th-century scholar in charge of editing all of Voltaire’s work. Besterman admired Voltaire, imperfections and all, and kept him in admirable perspective. While Besterman’s “Voltaire” (revised edition, 1977) is no longer in print, it’s worth a request from your library system or your used-book seller.

Bob Blaisdell edited "The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Documents."

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